Gorillas and Cell Phones

The National Transportation Safety Board is not winning any fans and not likely to make much headway with its resolution to ban drivers from even “hands free” cell phone use; after all, only 10 states even ban hand-held phones, and Chapel Hill, NC’s controversial complete cell phone ban had been put on hold. Yes, everyone knows that using cell phones while driving is dangerous, but most people believe that it’s the physical distraction of fiddling with the phone, not the mental distraction of the conversation itself.

Even David Strayer, a psychologist who studies distracted driving, was quoted in an article about the successful prosecution of a fatal texting-while-driving accident putting the physical distractions first:

“Getting a text while driving is a triple whammy….You take your eyes off the road to look at the text, you take your hand off the wheel to respond to the text, and your mind is distracted because you have to think about what you are going to write back.”

It’s no wonder people are left with the impression that if they have their eyes on their road and their hands on the wheel, their driving will be fine. I certainly wouldn’t advocate taking your eyes off the road for more than a moment or two, and not frequently at that – but it’s just as dangerous to take your mind off the road, which people unfortunately do all the time.

I think most people would agree that we see whatever we have our eyes on. Unfortunately, “The Monkey Business Illusion” shows just what crazy things pass right in front of us.

[Watch before reading on to get the full effect. You can mute if you need to; the video works just fine when muted, because you can read most of the key points.

If you didn’t spot the gorilla, you’re in good company. When I was a graduate student at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Dan Simmons came to give a talk about his work. He played a very similar clip, but without the advantage of the visible rewind, and I got to overhear two faculty behind me muttering to each other that it had to be a trick – it had to be a different video clip, because there was no way they had missed the gorilla the first time around.

The monkey business illusion is a classic example of inattentional blindness: when we’re paying attention to one thing, we just don’t “see” other things, even when we’re looking directly at them. The implication for drivers with cell phones is obvious: If you don’t spot a gorilla walking right in front of your eyes while counting passes in a basketball game, how likely do you think you’ll be to spot a light changing from green to red 200 feet ahead while on the cell phone solving some problem back at the office? Hands free is a step in the right direction, because with two hands on the wheel you’re in a better position to respond to a surprise on the road, but the fundamental problem is how long it will take you to recognize the surprise. With inattentional blindness, it may be too long.

Think that you need to spend less attention on your cell phone call than on counting those basketball passes? Well, we know that if you’re talking on a cell phone, you aren’t likely to see a clown on a unicycle as you walk by.

Think that a conversation on the phone shouldn’t be any different than a conversation with a passenger? Well, we know that unicycling clown was spotted by 60% of people walking with a friend, versus only 8% of people on a cell phone. Studies more focused on driving show that passengers will adjust their conversation complexity and make references to the road when traffic is bad. So your conversation with a passenger will be just as dangerous as a phone call if the pace and difficulty were the same, but someone who is physically present will recognize when your driving situation is challenging and compensate for it in a way that someone in your distant office never could.

It isn’t just a cell phone that creates dangerous distracted driving, of course; juggling that drive-thru dinner, digging around for a toll, fiddling with the radio, or maintaining the demilitarized zone between children in the backseat have the same potential to grab your attention and cause inattentional blindness toward the road. Cell phones are simply the newest and most obvious distraction.

Is a total cell phone ban the solution? I’d be wary of creating a law most people will ignore; I would suggest that a complete ban on cell phone use while driving would have the same effect as Prohibition or the criminalization of marijuana – no effect on use, while probably undermining respect for the law. (Think the comparison to a drug is wrong? Ask a college freshman if they’re addicted to their cell phone; in my experience, most will say “yes”).

What we need is education so that people use their phones more mindfully in ways that limit inattentional blindness: Think about traffic situation. Stick to topics that won’t drag you in; keep things factual, and avoid complex decision-making. The same applies when you’re talking to a passenger (let’s not have serious conversations about where this relationship is going while I’m driving, please), and when choosing music to listen to. Just ask yourself if this would keep you from spotting a gorilla.


2 thoughts on “Gorillas and Cell Phones

  1. I did spot the gorilla, however I counted the passes wrong (12 instead of 16) and did not notice the curtain changing color or a player on the black team walking away.

    I’m more guilty of talking while driving if my daughter is NOT in the car. It’s weird that I have to drive safe for her and not for me :-p I rarely text and when I do, it’s at a red light and usually to say “Omw” (shorthand for “on my way”). I’m not sure that makes it any better…

    • Texting at a red light means the thing you might be inattentionally blind to the red light turning green. While it will be incredibly annoying to the person behind you, it’s probably less dangerous that being blind to a green light turning red.

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